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Ibtihaj Muhammad Makes History in Rio

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"Who?" Ibtihaj Muhammad, the American fencer who had just lost to Cecilia Berder, of France, in the round of 16 at the women's individual saber event in Rio, coyly replied with a smile. Her dream of winning an individual medal at her first Olympics had just ended, but Muhammad was unwilling to cede her moment.

The first American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, Muhammad has a platform far more prominent than that of most fencers, or even most Olympians. The other members of Team USA nearly voted her to carry the opening ceremonies flag — she trailed only Michael Phelps. And while Muhammad has already said plenty about the Republican presidential nominee, she chose to focus on the positive after losing in Rio.

Read more: A New Face for Team USA

The loss left Muhammad frustrated and flustered: she contested a few calls with the ref, and exited the fencing area in tears before returning to meet the media. "In a sport like fencing, you are your biggest opponent," Muhammad says. "If you can control yourself and your nerves and emotions, and execute actions the way you want to execute them, you'll always be successful. And I failed to do that today."

What Muhammad hasn't failed to do, however, is embrace role as an ambassador for Muslim-American women. "I want to break cultural barriers," she says. "I feel like this moment, representing my country and the Muslim community, it's bigger than myself."

At the opening ceremonies, Muhammad took pictures with women from Saudi Arabia. "That was a beautiful experience to see women in hijab from all around the world be involved in sport and be present at this level of sport," she says, calling that night in the stadium in Rio one of the best moments of her life. "Anyone who has paid attention to the news would know the importance of having a Muslim woman on Team USA," says Muhammad. "It’s challenging those misconceptions that people have about who the Muslim woman is."

She rattles them off: she's forced to wear a hijab, she's oppressed, she must not have a voice. "I’m very vocal, very verbal, and very comfortable expressing myself," says Muhammad. "I’ve always been like that. I remember being told that I shouldn't fence as a kid because I was black. And it's like why? I want to fence."

Indeed, Muhammad hopes her story resonates with girls across the world. "How often do we tell our girls there are things they shouldn't do?" she said after her loss. "You know, they can be whatever they put their minds to."

Muhammad still has a shot an Olympic medal, in the team competition on Aug. 13. "I know the Americans didn't perform the way we wanted today," says Muhammad. Fellow American Mariel Zagunis, who won the individual event at the 2004 and 2008 Games, was also eliminated in the round of 16. "But I love my teammates and I believe in them. I believe in myself. I believe in us. And I want us to win a medal. More than anything, I want us to do it for our country."

Must Watch Olympians in Rio

Talita Antunes—The pressure on Brazil’s top-ranked women’s beach-­volleyball team to deliver gold on Copacabana Beach will be intense. França briefly retired after winning a bronze in London; Antunes is a third-time Olympian.
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Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca, Beach Volleyball, BrazilThe pressure on Brazil’s top-ranked women’s beach-­volleyball team to deliver gold on Copacabana Beach will be intense. França briefly retired after winning a bronze in London; Antunes is a third-time Olympian.Evgeny Biyatov—Sputnik/AP
Talita Antunes—The pressure on Brazil’s top-ranked women’s beach-­volleyball team to deliver gold on Copacabana Beach will be intense. França briefly retired after winning a bronze in London; Antunes is a third-time Olympian.
Chad le Clos—He snatched gold from Michael Phelps in the 200-m butterfly in 2012 and is hoping to defend it against his archrival.
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Usain Bolt—When Usain Bolt pulled out of the Jamaican trials in July because of a hamstring injury, shudders were felt far beyond the sprinting--obsessed island nation. Since exploding onto the world scene at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bolt, who will turn 30 on Aug. 21, has been the most dominant and marketable force in his sport. Could the world’s fastest human really miss out on his last Olympics? His rivals, however, knew better. “Come on, man,” said U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, Bolt’s longtime adversary. “He’s Usain.” Bolt has made a habit of entering major races with nagging injuries and underwhelming tune-ups, then winning anyway. In Rio, Bolt will shoot for an unprecedented career haul: nine straight Olympic races––the 100 m, 200 m and 4 x 100-m relay in Beijing, London and Rio––nine golds. Enjoy this final run. We’ll never see it again. —S.G.
Kevin Durant—Durant is the rare NBA megastar who hasn’t bowed out of Rio. With future Golden State teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, he’ll try to fend off Pau Gasol–led Spain for the Americans’ third straight gold.
Bubba Watson—Golf returns to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years, and long-hitting lefty Watson will be the top-ranked player after fellow major winners Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson pulled out.
Laurie Hernandez—At just 16, the New Jersey native has infectious energy and a floor routine that could put her on the podium next to teammate Simone Biles in the all-around competition.
Matthew Centrowitz—Centrowitz’s father Matt Sr. ran for the U.S. at the 1976 and 1980 Games. Matt Jr. finished fourth in London in 2012 and set an Olympic-trials record this year in the 1,500 m, giving him a shot to medal in Rio.
Jenn Suhr—Suhr won a national title within a year of picking up a pole in 2004. Now, the upstate–New York native goes for back-to-back pole-vault golds.
Serena Williams and Venus Williams—For many top pro athletes, an Olympic medal is a nice accessory to have hanging in the game room. The Grand Slams, majors and NBA titles are what pay the bills—a point made clear this summer when LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Rory McIlroy and many other big names bailed on Rio. They cited fatigue, injuries and the risk of catching Zika. But really, these athletes are staying home because they can afford to. The Williams sisters could have joined these stars and skipped Rio. Instead, Venus and Serena are bucking this Olympic indifference. They’ve embraced the Games with the zeal of athletes for whom the event is their Super Bowl. They’re both four-time gold medalists, each with one singles title and three doubles golds won together. Venus recently said she holds the Olympics in higher regard than the Slams. When some pros expressed frustration that the Olympics don’t count toward pro tour rankings, she scoffed. “Who needs ranking points if you’re playing for a gold medal?” Venus said. “Gotta get your life in perspective.” More than anything, the bond between Venus and Serena is what keeps them coming back to the Olympics. What’s better than trying to win a gold medal while playing with your sibling? And as Serena’s career has surpassed her older -sister’s—she tied Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 Grand Slam tournament wins at Wimbledon and will attempt to break it at the U.S. Open in -September––-Venus has remained her biggest fan. “I think some siblings would feel different,” Serena says. “But if I win, she feels like she won. There’s literally no difference.” In Rio, they can own the podium together. Serena is favored to de-fend the 2012 singles gold she won in London, while the sisters are a good bet to edge Switzerland’s Martina Hingis and Belinda Bencic for their fourth Olympic doubles title. And for what may be the last time, we’ll see America’s greatest sister act draped in gold. —S.G.
LaShawn Merritt—Merritt won the 400-m gold in 2008, but a strained hamstring took him out of contention in 2012. After running the year’s fastest time at the U.S. trials, he’s on pace for redemption in Rio.
Ashton Eaton—The winner of the Olympic decathlon has been hailed as the world’s greatest athlete ever since King Gustav V of Sweden bestowed the honor on Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Stockholm Games. It isn’t mere hyperbole: the decathlon is a grueling two-day test of speed (100-m dash, 110-m hurdles, 400 m), endurance (1,500-m run), agility (long jump, high jump, pole vault) and strength (shot put, discus, javelin). Over the past four years, no one has been better at it than Oregon native Ashton Eaton, 28. Eaton, who’s married to Canadian heptathlon contender Brianne Theisen-Eaton, won gold in London and hasn’t lost a major competition since. At the 2015 world championships, Eaton broke his own world record. Should he win in Rio, he’d become the first back-to-back Olympic decathlon champ in 32 years. World’s greatest athlete? Maybe that should be of all time. —S.G.
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Allyson Felix—In 2004, when Felix was 18 and prepping for her first Olympics, she trained with a teammate who was pushing 30. She swore that would never be her. “And here I am in the same position, probably looking so old to those kids who are training with us,” says Felix. “But I completely get it now. If you love it, why not?” Felix announced herself as one of the world’s great sprinting talents with a silver medal in the 200 m at those 2004 Games, then paid off that promise with another silver and four golds in 2008 and 2012—tying Jackie Joyner-Kersee for the U.S. women’s track medals record. Felix won’t get the chance to win gold in both the 200 m and 400 m in Rio; she missed a 200 spot by 0.01 sec. at the U.S. trials. But a win in either the 400 m or a relay would give Felix the gold-medal record and cement her place in track history. —S.G.
Katie Ledecky—“I can do this.” It’s what Ledecky, 19, tells herself when her lungs are burning and her muscles are scream-ing and she still has dozens of laps to go. It’s what she told herself four years ago in London, where she surged past the heavy favorites to win her first Olympic gold. “I can do this” can be a mixed blessing. “She fails spectacularly and frequently,” says her coach Bruce Gemmell. That’s because Ledecky isn’t afraid of pushing her limits, shooting for a seemingly -impossible pace. But it’s also what propelled her to make history as the first to swim, and win, all four freestyle -distances—200 m, 400 m, 800 m and 1,500 m—at the same meet, last year’s world championships. That’s the aquatic version of beating Usain Bolt and winning the marathon. “I’m glad I’m not in her training group, because she literally whoops up on the boys,” says fellow Marylander Michael Phelps, the world’s most decorated Olympian. Even scarier? Ledecky, part of a deep U.S. team that includes fellow 2012 breakout Missy Franklin, hasn’t hit her peak. “If she puts everything together, she’ll be like Secretariat at the Belmont in 1973—a once-in-a--generation thing,” says Gemmell. Will it happen in Rio? All Ledecky has to tell herself is “I can do this.” —A.P.
Dana Vollmer—She made the Olympic team just 16 months after giving birth to her son Arlen and looks to defend her 2012 gold in the 100-m butterfly.
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Maya DiRado—DiRado will join Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky as the only U.S. swimmers to race in three individual events. The Stanford graduate will go head-to-head against reigning Olympic champion and teammate Missy Franklin in the 200-m backstroke.
Sam Mikulak—Newly recovered from an ankle injury that kept him out most of the season, he’s the U.S.’s best hope in the men’s all-around but faces stiff competition from China and Japan.
Ashleigh Johnson—Johnson, a rangy goalkeeper who learned the game at a Miami-area community pool, will be the first black American woman to compete in Olympic water polo. The favored U.S. team owns every major title in the sport.
Lin Dan—The bad boy of badminton is aiming for his third gold in men’s singles. But “Super Dan,” 32, will face his perennial foe, Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei, who beat him in April.
Osea Kolinisau—Kolinisau captains Fiji, the back-to-back world champs in rugby sevens, who are favored to win the sport’s first-ever gold. Much is riding on it: Fiji has never won an Olympic gold medal, and its rugby squad was announced by the Prime Minister.
David Rudisha—The world-record holder in the 800 returns to defend his Olympic title. He holds six of the eight fastest times ever run in the event.
Alex Morgan—A semifinal-winning header at the London Games turned her into a superstar. One year after winning the World Cup, she leads a U.S. squad favored to win gold over France and Brazil.
Meb Keflezighi—The ageless Keflezighi, who won the first Boston Marathon after the 2013 bombings, will be a sentimental favorite in the Rio marathon.
Om Yun Chol—North Korea’s pocket Hercules doesn’t get out much, but when he does he strikes gold. In London, the 5-ft. weight lifter clean and jerked three times his body weight, and is the 56-kg world champion three years running.
Kohei Uchimura—Tokyo’s summer heat has infiltrated the national training center, rendering bows a little sticky and dismounts a little slack. But Kohei Uchimura, the defending Olympic all-around title holder, lands his jumps with a panther poise that belies their caliber of diffi-culty. He does not appear to sweat. Uchimura—who boasts six consecutive all-around world titles, double that of any other tumbler in history—is quite possibly the greatest male gymnast of all time. “With today’s scoring,” he says, “if you don’t move like a robot or a machine, you won’t get the points.” But Uchimura also brings artistry to accuracy. The son of two gymnasts and brother to another, his destiny was set at the age of 3, when he began tumbling at his parents’ gym in the southern city of Nagasaki. Today at 27, he might seem geriatric in the callow world of gymnastics. Uchimura, though, considers himself to be at “peak form” for Rio, where he hopes to not only defend his individual all-around title but also lead Team Japan past its Chinese rivals, who have dominated the past two Olympics. Not that Uchimura plans to bow out at Rio. After all, the next Summer Games are in Tokyo. —Hannah Beech
Simone Biles of the U.S competes on the beam during the women's all-round final at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow
Gwen Jorgensen—A former tax accountant at Ernst & Young, Jorgensen is the only U.S. woman to win back-to-back world titles and is the runaway favorite for gold.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce—Usain Bolt may steal Jamaica’s sprinting spotlight, but Fraser-Pryce deserves her due: no woman has won three straight 100-m Olympic golds, a feat Fraser-Pryce can accomplish in Rio.
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Caster Semenya—After years of controversy over her naturally high testosterone levels, the Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared the way for the 400-m and 800-m runner to compete in Rio. Semenya owns the fastest 800-m time this year.
Cate and Bronte Campbell—After swimming together in the London Olympics, the Campbell sisters have their sights set on a more impressive goal in Rio: becoming the first siblings to share the Olympic podium in an individual swimming race. No brother or sister pair has ever done it. But there’s reason to think Cate, 24, and Bronte, 22, have a shot. They earned their country’s two spots in the 100-m freestyle by racing the clock—and each other—to the wall in record time. Cate recorded the fastest time in the world this year, and Bronte clocked a time that bests the U.S. record. Being sisters hasn’t curbed their ambition, both say, although Cate joked to Australian reporters that “sometimes I think I would prefer if we swam a different stroke.” Their mother was a synchronized swimmer and introduced the siblings to the water early, soon after they were born, in Malawi. The girls logged laps in Lake Malawi, in sight of hippos and crocs, before immigrating to Australia in 2001. At the 2015 world champion-ships, the Campbells finished first and third in the 100-m -freestyle. Soon the sisters, who already share a coach and a home, may also share Olympic history. —A.P.
Laszlo Cseh—He’s the reigning world champ in the 200-m fly but has yet to earn an Olympic gold. For that to change in Rio, the Hungarian will have to beat Michael Phelps and reigning Olympic champion Chad le Clos to the wall.
Sarah Sjostrom—The 100-m-­butterfly favorite is hoping to be the first woman to win an Olympic swimming gold for her country.
Adeline Gray—A three-time world champion and daughter of a Denver police officer, Gray, 25, is a favorite to win America’s first-ever gold in women’s wrestling. “Where I feel creative,” she says, “is on the wrestling mat.”
Kayla Harrison—America’s first judo gold medalist, in London, could ­repeat––and may follow ex–training partner Ronda Rousey into MMA.
Molly Huddle—Huddle won both the 5,000 m and 10,000 m at U.S. trials, but will only run the 10,000 in Rio, where she could be just the third American woman to medal in that event.
English Gardner—After tearing her knee in a high school powder-­puff-football game, Gardner thought she’d never race again. She’s now the fastest woman in the U.S. and a 100-m threat.
Ren Qian—On Feb. 21, one day after turning 15, Ren Qian walked to the edge of a platform in Rio de Janeiro and plunged the equivalent of a three-story building. Delivering a back 21-2 somersault and a half twist, the young diver slid into the pool with barely a ripple. The judges awarded Ren a perfect 10, cementing her victory in the 10-m platform diving World Cup event and establishing her as the latest in a line of Chinese diving prodigies cultivated by the state. “They must start between the ages of 3 to 4,” says Yu Lianming, who has coached top divers for decades in China’s vast network of state-run sports schools. When Ren returns to Brazil in August, she’ll be the prohibitive favorite in the high dive—and a critical part of a 13--person Chinese squad that has the talent to sweep the Olympic diving golds. (China won all but two in London in 2012.) In a sport in which American women are no threat to medal, the crop-haired athlete’s toughest competition comes from her compatriots. —H.B.
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Carlin Isles—The former football and track star stumbled across an online video of rugby in 2012 and decided to try the sport. He’s now regarded as the fastest man in the game, which is back in the Olympics after 92 years. Thanks to crossover athletes like Isles and New England Patriot Nate Ebner, the U.S. has a real shot at the podium in the speedier version of the game, known as rugby sevens.
Billy Besson, Marie Riou—Sailing will debut a mixed event in Rio using a catamaran that seems to fly above the water. The biggest hurdle for this French pair, who have won four straight world titles, may be Rio’s polluted Guanabara Bay.
Jordan Burroughs—Wrestling: The Olympics always bring surprises, but the Camden, N.J., native is a safe bet to win a second straight gold: Burroughs is 24-1 in world and Olympic competition.
Sarah Menezes—A gold medalist in London, Menezes could win the home team’s first gold in Rio, inspiring Saturday-­night samba celebrations throughout Brazil.
Sun Yang—The first Chinese man to win Olympic gold in swimming slumped after 2012, falling out with his coach and failing a doping test. But he’s determined to defend his Olympic crowns in the 400-m and 1,500-m freestyle.
Oksana Chusovitina—At 41, she’s the oldest female Olympic gymnast ever, and she has a team gold and an individual silver medal to show for her six appearances at the Games. Her best chance for more hardware will be in the vault.
David Boudia—The defending Olympic champ in the 10-m platform almost quit diving but credits his wife and daughter with re-energizing his interest in the sport.
Claressa Shields—The Flint, Mich., native won gold in the 165-lb. division in 2012 and is favored to do it again in Rio.
Kerri Walsh Jennings of the U.S. spikes the ball past April Ross of the U.S. at the women's beach volleyball gold medal match at the Horse Guards Parade
Ibtihaj Muhammad—Muhammad picked up fencing in eighth grade in part because the body-length attire accommodated her Muslim faith. The Duke grad will be the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab.
Katelin Snyder—The U.S. women’s eight-rowing squad has won every world title and Olympic gold medal since 2006. Snyder, the coxswain, is an Olympic rookie, but she’s guided four U.S. boats to world championships.
Kim Rhode—With a medal in skeet, Rhode, 37, would become the first woman to win medals in six straight Olympics. (Italian luger Armin Zöggeler did it on the men’s side.)
Shang Chunsong—Sprite like on the uneven bars, she was China’s highest finisher in the all-around at the 2015 world ­championships—placing fourth—and could medal in Rio.
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Evgeny Biyatov—Sputnik/AP
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